The National Parks of Utah
The southern half of Utah feels like a time warp--thanks to the prehistoric rock formations at five absolutely breathtaking national parks
Cramming five national parks into four days isn't for everyone. But if you are going to attempt such a quest, Southern Utah is the place to do it. Five of the nation's most gorgeous parks are packed into 650 miles of high desert. Bryce Canyon and Zion are both justly famous; so are the sandstone bridges in Arches National Park. Less well known are Canyonlands, every inch as impressive as the Grand Canyon, and Capitol Reef.
Sure, attempting five parks in four days was ambitious. Not to mention the fact that my friend Stew and I did it at the very chilly start of spring, in part to beat the crowds. But over the years, we've climbed mountains together. We've traveled through the hinterlands of eastern Cuba. We've even taken a troop of Boy Scouts on a three-week tour of Europe.
In other words, we can't resist a challenge.
Day 1: Grand Junction to Moab
Less than 90 minutes after landing in Grand Junction, Colo., we made it to Moab, Utah, a laid-back city wedged between Arches and Canyonlands. We had booked a mountain-bike ride north of Moab leading to a panorama of the desert from the northern end of Arches National Park. We'd have to grind 700 vertical feet up slickrock, a bald sandstone which, despite the name, is remarkably grippy.
Our guide, from Rim Tours, was a lean young dude called Goose. Nine years ago, he left his home in Ohio, as well as his full name (Mike Gostlin), to guide rafting and biking trips in Colorado and Utah. Goose rode a one-gear with no shocks. Stew and I were on state-of-the-art mountain bikes with fast shifting and full suspension. Not that it helped. Five minutes into the ride, I was gasping for air, pushing my jelly legs to propel myself up a four-mile-long rock ridge.
All I could think was, Thank God for dinosaur prints. The three-toed impressions appeared every 50 yards, and each was surrounded by a circle of stones to keep people away. I disembarked to examine every single one. After the ninth footprint, Goose saw through my sudden interest in paleontology. The ride down was much easier.
Stew and I then drove into the popular southern end of Arches. Families piled out of minivans and trotted along trails to view aptly named geological formations such as Balanced Rock and Double Arch. By late afternoon, we were over the pain of the bike ride enough to do a 3/4-mile hike up to a view of Delicate Arch, a 45-foot-tall horseshoe of orange and red sandstone.
We raced the setting sun as we looped up Highway 191 and then down Rte. 313 into Dead Horse Point State Park, at the northern corner of Canyonlands. The main overlook at Dead Horse Point also offers a view of Canyonlands. The muddy Colorado River snakes in from the left in wide, lazy curves. We got there just in time to catch the last bit of daylight.
Our hotel's best feature was its location--right behind Moab's oldest microbrewery, Eddie McStiff's. The bartender plunked down a basket of tortilla chips and some tasty salsa--for 69¢--to accompany pints of the brewery's own Sky Island Scottish Ale, Cisco Bend Stout, and Rock Amber Ale.
- Rim Tours 1233 South Hwy. 191, Moab, 800/626-7335, half-day ride $90
- Eddie McStiff's57 S. Main St., Moab, 435/259-2337, eddiemcstiffs.com, pint $3
- Arches National Park435/719-2299, nps.gov/arch, weeklong car pass $10
- Dead Horse Point State ParkRte. 313, 435/259-2614, stateparks.utah.gov, day pass $7
Day 2: Moab to Torrey
The largest of the five national parks at 527 square miles, Canyonlands is divided into three sections. Stew and I had gotten a quick look at the northern Island in the Sky section yesterday at sunset, and we wanted to see how the southeastern section, Needles, compared. (Reaching the westerly Maze section involves 46 miles of dirt road just to get to the ranger station; maybe next time.) The road into Needles ascended to the Big Spring Canyon Overlook. Whereas Island in the Sky was all grand, wide canyons, Needles felt more intimate. Pygmy juniper trees decorated the ground, and hundreds of layers of sandstone fanned out in phyllo-like sheets. Newspaper Rock was on the way back to the main road. The black stone is covered in petroglyphs that were scratched over a 2,000-year period by native tribes (Anasazi, Fremont, Paiute, and Navajo). It was an impressive collage of images: men on horseback hunting antelope, oversize gods sprouting horns and antlers.
We stopped for lunch at Twin Rocks Café in the one-road town of Bluff. The Navajo fry bread was crispy, puffy, and wonderfully greasy, and a platter of mesquite-smoked barbecued pork ribs and brisket was huge and satisfying. A sign past the town of Mexican Hat announced that we were now in "Navajoland," the Native American reservation, which sprawls across southern Utah and northern Arizona. The only real detail our map showed was a dot labeled Goulding, just north of Arizona. It turned out to be Goulding's Lodge & Tours, a complex with a lodge, museum with memorabilia from movies shot locally, and outfitter that runs tours of the reservation. In an air-conditioned gift shop we picked up some Native American drums and turquoise jewelry.
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